The Dark Side of the Internet
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
In 2018, a high-ranked diplomat of a non-EU country in Brussels asked me if I was interested in joining the efforts of Steve Bannon to export his fiery populism to Europe. "It is very kind of you, but I believe that Bannon is a dangerous man", I kindly declined.
Steve Bannon has been the Darth Vader of Emperor Trump. The core of the Star Wars saga has always been the struggle between the Bright Side of the Force and the Dark Side. But while in Star Wars the "good guys" are coming out on the top at the end of each story, the reality is different on planet Earth.
Digital communication has permeated almost every aspect of people’s lives, across the world, it provides an essential case for examining how the use of new technology affects human well-being, human rights and democracy.
The question of whether new and social media undermine our well-being is an essential societal concern. From encouraging suicide to giving people an unhealthy addiction to staring at smartphones, digital technology has been accused of doing more harm than good.
There is increasing evidence that the Internet and social media can influence suicide-related behaviour. Social media can be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. It has a powerful draw for many people that leads to them checking it all the time without even thinking about it.
Another serious concern is the impact of digital technologies on democracy. According to a new JRC report, the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, the democratic foundations of our societies are under pressure from the influence that social media has on our political opinions and our behaviours.
One of the most critical public concerns is the use of the Internet as a multiplier of disinformation and manipulation of the public opinion in changing people's political behaviour.
Armies of trolls, bots, fake social media accounts, "news" websites and online publications are used to spread propaganda, confusion and fear among innocent people.
Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote in his regular birthday letter (2018) that "the web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today".
"What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared," he added.
In 2018, the revelation that 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested by data firm Cambridge Analytica so it could target them with political ads, was a huge blow to the social network. Fundamental questions arise about Facebook's approach to data protection and disclosure. Can the social network adequately secure our most personal data? And if that data is misused, is our democracy still safe? Do we need a voters protection legislation as we have in place for consumers?
For example, Brazil’s new president makes Trump look like a saint: he praises dictators and wants to destroy the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s supporters used fake accounts to flood social media with toxic lies designed to confuse voters and create distrust. Polls show that a large majority of his voters believed these lies, for example that his opponent was a paedophile.
While most countries use their troll armies to police and influence their own citizens, some have already turned against the European Union, the US and Western-type democracies in general. A 2017 Oxford study noted at least 30 nations were utilising them.
Here you have some public opinion manipulators:
Moscow is financing legions of pro-Russia Internet bots and trolls. According to internal documents released by a group of hackers in 2013, Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg employed more than 600 people across Russia. They had an annual budget of $10m, half of which was paid out in cash.
In January 2017, a joint report by the CIA, FBI and NSA confirmed that there had been Russian interference in the 2016 election. Kremlin's objective, according to this document, was to undermine the confidence of Americans in their electoral system and to denigrate Hillary Clinton.
Between January 2015 and August 2017, Facebook linked 80.000 publications to Internet Research Agency through more than 470 different accounts. At the same time, a total of 50.258 Twitter accounts were linked to Russian bots. Those fake accounts were programmed to share false information during the 2016 election period. Approximately 80% of these bots behaved in a way that supported Donald Trump, mostly using the hashtags #donaldtrump, #trump2016, #neverhillary and #trumppence16.
Russia is also trying to discredit the European Union and expose it as a failed project. In its euvsdisinfo database, the European External Action Service (EEAS) outlines different cases of fake stories related to the coronavirus that stemmed from Russian media outlets, such as the “prediction” that the pandemic will cause the collapse of the Schengen area, the paralysis of the EU, etc."
On 10 June 2020, China and Russia have been once more accused by the European Union of running disinformation campaigns inside the EU. "Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighbourhood and globally, seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context," a communication of the European Commission states.
The naming of China as a creator of disinformation comes following a public scandal in the EEAS. The EU’s foreign affairs department denied media reports that it toned down allegations made against China as part of a report into state-led disinformation campaigns, following pressure from Beijing.
Coordinated and covert attempts by China-linked actors to manipulate information - particularly regarding COVID-19, also have been detected in countries including the USA, Argentina, Serbia, Italy, and Taiwan, with the relevant content often delivered in local languages.
The online army of Chinese trolls are called the 50-Cent Party, because it is believed they get paid $0.50 per comment that they post. This means that they are eager to get into an argument with you. The more you argue, the more money they make. According to a Harvard study, this group of Internet mercenaries is made up of at least two million people.
Pro-Beijing actors are carrying out a whole range of clandestine activities in different countries and languages. The campaigns aim to spread proven falsehoods, sow societal discord and panic, manipulate perceptions of public opinion, or undermine the democratic process.
Evidence revealed last year indicated that some Chinese-language campaigns had begun on platforms like Twitter as early as April 2017, but the latest round of incidents and investigations points to a more definitive shift in Chinese influence operations.
AKP, Turkey's ruling party, began recruiting a team of 6.000 social media operatives back in 2015. "We aim at developing a positive political language which we are teaching to our volunteers," a party official told the Wall Street Journal a few years earlier. "And when the opposing camp spreads disinformation about the party, we correct them with valid information, always using positive language." However, AK trolls interference is not so friendly and, they spread false stories.
Turkish trolls deploy three aspects of AKPs populism: serving the people, fetish of the will of the people, and demonisation of opponents. Whereas trolls traditionally target and mock institutions, Turkey’s political trolls act on behalf of the Islamic establishment. They produce a digital culture of lynching and censorship. Trolls’ language also impacts pro-government journalists who act like trolls and attack journalists, academics, and artists critical to the government.
Dissidents are being forced to leave Turkey due to online threats. On some occasions, online abuse has escalated into physical violence. Barbaros Sansal, an LGBT activist and one of Turkey’s most famous fashion designers, said he had been beaten up by pro-Erdogan supporters, including one 2012 attack which left him with a broken nose.
I have been in contact with Barbaros Sansal during this year and, he told me that he was forced to leave the country in September because of threats to his life. I was worried when I saw that his Twitter account with more than half a million followers disappeared. I received a message later from someone saying that "he posted a tweet making a joke about the earthquake in Izmir and then shut down his account because of the reactions."
In December 2016, Turkish dissident journalist Abdullah Bozkurt was falsely linked to the assassin of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov. The diplomat was killed in an art gallery in Ankara by a Turkish police officer in what is supposed to be the most secure part of Turkey’s capital city. A false claim stating that the killer stayed in his apartment was picked up by trolls of the government and disseminated on Twitter. The same journalist describes a Turkish government disinformation campaign with fake stories planted in the media which has been exposed in court in 2020.
In June 2020, Twitter closed 7.340 Turkish accounts for violating its policies. Twitter reported that these accounts were found to be linked to the youth activities of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The statement said: "Based on our analysis of the network’s technical indicators and account behaviours, the collection of fake and compromised accounts was being used to amplify political narratives favourable to the AKP, and demonstrated strong support for President Erdogan. We’re disclosing 7.340 accounts to the archive today." Twitter declared that the research on the identification of these accounts was done in conjunction with the Australian Strategy Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO).
Internet is among a few things that humans have built, but don't really understand. It is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. Hundreds of millions of people are creating and consuming a gigantic amount of content in an online world that is not really bound by the rule of law. A source for potentially scary evil but also tremendous good. We are only just beginning to witness its impact. In a future blog-post, I will analyse the Bright Side of the Internet.